I was convinced that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" would become a huge hit last Thursday night when Gibson appeared on "The Tonight Show." A live studio audience in Los Angeles is not exactly a snapshot of the Bible Belt, and yet from this crowd of fans, gawkers, and TV-savvy hipsters, Gibson received a sustained standing ovation. "I didn't expect to hit a main artery," he said to host Jay Leno.
Main artery -- that's kind of a pun, huh? Most obviously, Gibson's film offers up a gusher of blood -- literally, on the screen, as audiences watch Jesus' Passion. But at the same time, the film has let loose a geyser of, well, passion among millions of moviegoers. Indeed, the film has caused powerful feelings to pour forth across the United States -- and soon, no doubt, the world. Part of the pro-"Passion" passion, of course, is just plain populism. That is, if virtually the entire cultural establishment comes down on the film director's head -- "New Film May Harm Gibson's Career" was a headline in last Thursday's New York Times -- then lots of Americans are going to embrace the movie just to be ornery and contrarian. But the reax to the film is more than just a kneejerk spasm of, say, Red States and their culture vs. Blue States and their culture. The film is going to cause deep repercussions within Christendom, even as, potentially, it shrinks Christendom.
I happened to see the film in Manhattan, just south of Union Square. That area, wedged in between hip Greenwich Village and old-moneyed Gramercy Park, is a neighborhood where studio apartments rent for $3000 a month. It is home to literary agents, publishing houses, and modeling agencies; in other words, it is not a place where Christian values are normally thought to reign supreme. And yet on a Saturday night, all the showings of "The Passion" were sold out. Standing in line for popcorn, I couldn't help but hear -- OK, I was actually trying to eavesdrop -- the conversations of the people around me. It was if I was at a church; everyone was talking about Biblical history or theology.
But first, a note on the blood 'n' guts issue. Relative to the expectations generated by reviews -- David Denby of The New Yorker called the film a "grisly, unilluminating, procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony . . . a sickening death trip" -- the quease-factor isn't all that bad. It's sort of like "Saving Private Ryan" six years ago; by the time you get past the critics and get into the theater, what you actually see on the screen comes almost as a relief. Indeed, many films offer more horrifying kinds of violence, although strangely they are not scourged by the critics. Quentin Tarantino's 1992 "Reservoir Dogs," for example, featured a scene in which a cop was being tortured by a crook; I confess I don't exactly know what happened after that, because I walked out at that moment. But I do know -- we all know -- that Tarantino is regarded as an artist. His violence, in such subsequent films as "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill," is taken by many critics to be High Art.
Indeed, whatever the "spatter factor" in "The Passion," it is surely a work of art. Gibson has long been recognized as a talented director; he won the directing Oscar for "Braveheart" in 1995, even as the film also won best picture. And "The Passion" makes many daring aesthetic choices. First and most obviously, there's the narrow focus of the film -- the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, plus flashbacks to earlier incidents. Second, there's the decision to film it in Aramaic and Latin; the result is a verisimilitude that one doesn't get from the traditional Biblers, where everyone speaks in elevated quasi-British tones. Third, there's the personification of Satan, if "personify" is the right word. And fourth, there's the movie's violence, which is most definitely the product of Gibson's aesthetic, albeit idiosyncratic, vision.
OK, it's art. But is it anti-Semitic art? There's no doubt that Jews are the bad guys in the movie, although, of course, that's what the New Testament says, too. The plain fact is that Jesus -- be he either messiah or misfit -- was a renegade from the Judaism of the time, and it can't be expected that such a rupture would have no consequences; in those days, the non-violent resolution of disputes was a rarity. Experts can quibble around the margins, but for the most part, Gibson was correct when he said, "If you have a problem with the movie, you have a problem with the Gospels." To be sure, the post-Holocaust ecumenism of the last 50 years has put a stopper on the idea that it's appropriate to hold a two-thousand-year-old grudge into the present day. And in fact, I don't expect that many -- or any -- Americans will rush from this film into the embrace of, say, the Aryan Nations.
Moreover, few people of any kind come off looking good. The Romans -- with the admittedly huge exception of Mr. and Mrs. Pilate -- come across as Nazi-like in their gleeful sadism. Indeed, the film offers several visual meditations on the on the sort of competitive one-upsmanship that's so easily observed among men: "I can hit harder than you can." The Romans, in fact, embody the sort of savagery one sees in the art of Goya or Doré.
Even the Apostles seem like a mostly cowering and ineffective bunch. Saint Peter's three denials of Jesus, for example, are each accounted for. Indeed, watching Peter weasel around to save his own skin leaves one asking, "Is this man really the rock upon which Jesus is supposed to build an enduring church?" The only solid figures in the film are the womenfolk -- Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Veronica, the last-named being a figure mostly from the Catholic tradition. But the three of them together have barely a dozen lines in the whole film; so while they are undeniably noble, it's hard to see how women were ever going to rise in This Man's Church. And in fact, they haven't risen very far.
So what will be the effect of the film? The New York Post recently published a piece, in which Washington Bureau Chief Deborah Orin speculated on the fallout from the film in 2004. She quoted one Democratic activist worrying, "Whenever religion becomes a central topic of discussion, Democrats don't do so well, and now it's really out there." That same Democrat, who demanded anonymity, added that the movie would be conflated with other moral concerns -- gay marriage, naughty radio programming, the Janet Jackson breast-flap -- into an anti-liberal critical mass. And John McLaughlin, Republican pollster, was happy to agree, saying, "The movie has become a catalyst and a metaphor for discussions about religious belief."
To be sure, Bush is the one candidate in modern memory who said, during the 2000 campaign, that his favorite political philosopher was "Jesus Christ" -- a choice that GOPer McLaughlin calls "brilliant." And yet at the same time, Bush is generally trailing John Kerry in the polls. So it could be argued that the movie is catalyzing opinion in an anti-Bush way.
But I think it's more likely that the film is going to have little political impact in 2004. First off, from what I can tell, many of those watching are young, black, and Hispanic. They aren't likely to vote, and if they do, it's hard to believe that this film will persuade them to vote for a Texas Republican for president. Furthermore, the message of Jesus was hardly a political message: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, render unto God what is God's." Of course, subsequently, Christianity became intensely political. But that's the point: it takes time for a religious event to ripple into politics.
To sum up, I don't think that the movie will have any effect on Christian-Jewish relations, nor will it have much impact on contemporary politics.
So what effect will it have? Here's a bet: "The Passion" will change the terms of debate within Christianity itself. The film is going to prove remarkably persuasive to many -- "You want to know what Christianity is all about? Go see that Mel Gibson movie, and see for yourself." For a society that's substantially post-literate, the mere existence of the movie is going to do more for Christian evangelism than a billion Gideon Bibles left in hotel-room drawers. Moreover, at a time when many prominent Christians -- Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson -- bring with them more negatives than positives, Gibson, the repentant sinner/charismatic movie star/fearless filmmaker, has breakout potential in the proselytizing biz.
But what's Gibson's message? In a nutshell, it's an effort, however ill-defined, to restore the pre-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic Church. Vatican 2, of course, was the early 60s effort to "modernize" the church, doing away, for example, with the Latin mass. These changes have always been controversial; critics have said that the church threw away the baby along with the bathwater. That is, in seeking to update liturgy and theology, Popes John Paul XXIII and Paul VI inadvertently vitiated the mysterious and magisterial essence of the church. Gibson himself has established a Latin-rite church in Malibu, and while he has, so far at least, shied away from tackling larger questions about the direction of the overall church, it's not hard to believe that, at the age of 48, his life as a religious activist has only just begun. And so while it might be hard to imagine young Hispanics, for example, ever signing up as Southern Baptists, it's easy to imagine them hanging with Mel.
And 'twas ever thus. Fundamentalism -- going back to the original text, to the old-time religion, which is truer because it's closer in time to the original event -- is a recurrent theme in just about every faith. And such movements are by no means limited to primitives. The term "fundamentalism" comes from a 12-volume work, published beginning in 1905, entitled The Fundamentals; the authors were all associated with the Princeton Theological Seminary. And so it is today that Protestants revisit their roots every so often, as do, of course, Muslims. And the most dynamic movement in Jewry is that of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox.
Nor is fundamentalism limited to the Abrahamic religions. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party has gained a seemingly permanent lock on that country's politics by crystallizing Hinduism into a nationalist movement.
But one huge obstacle stands in the way of all religious fundamentalisms and their desire to return to the good old days. And that obstacle, of course, is science, which promises to take us forward, to better new days. Indeed, since the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial in the 17th century, religion and science have been mostly at odds.
Four centuries later, the Roman Pope stands as perhaps the world's foremost opponent of a new kind of inquiry: stem cell research. For better or for worse, the church isn't trying to integrate the scientific and theological worldviews; instead, the Vatican is trying to maintain a privileged political position for its worldview. And of course, the conservative Catholic position has been bolstered by the support of conservative Protestants, most notably, President George W. Bush, who has done his best to thwart a meaningful stem cell program in the US. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Bush has expressed a desire to see "The Passion.")
Meanwhile a public backlash against the conservative religious position is underway. The Wall Street Journal has mostly kept quiet on stem cell issues, in part, one imagines, because the Journal's edit page has long sought to make an alliance with the conservative religious community on other issues, from tax cuts to Iraq. But on Monday, the Journal published a cri de coeur by Jose Cibelli, a professor of biotechnology at Michigan State University and head of its Cellular Reprogramming Laboratory, entitled, "Wake Up America."
Cibelli warned that restrictions -- mostly faith-based--on stem-cell research means that America "has lost control of the one of the most promising research areas of this century." One can presume that a person named Jose Cibelli is Catholic, at least by ancestry, but it appears that the march of medical science is more important to him than the latest papal encyclical, not to mention the latest presidential directive. Instead, Cibelli seems more motivated by a desire to cure people -- using science, not religion. As he noted in his piece, 128 million people in the US could benefit from stem cell research, from 58 million sufferers of heart disease to 250,000 victims of spinal cord injuries.
The issue of stem-cell research is not "ripe" yet. The 2004 presidential election is going to be fought over different topics, domestic and foreign. However, over time, the looming reality that medical technology, radical as it might be, can deliver huge benefits to ordinary people is going to sink in. And at that point, I predict, religion will yield, just as it has over such once-hot topics as heliocentrism and Darwinism.
So Gibson's movie can be seen as a backlash, but not a tidal wave. He will transform the heart and soul of many believers and some non-believers; in the process, he might well pull Christians in a more conservative, even reactionary, direction. But it's hard to imagine that he and his movie will reverse the larger arrow of progress, which points to science, secularism, and rationalism. In fact, it's quite possible that fundamentalism and Gibsonism will prove polarizing, driving out marginal believers, even as the hardshell base is hardened up. But of course, in a democracy, aggregate numbers of votes, as well as the intensity of individual voters, matters. So for all its power, "The Passion" could ultimately shrink the influence of the very institutions and belief systems that Gibson wishes to transform.
Who says so? I say so, and history is on my side.